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Here’s what Michigan schools could look like this fall under Gov. Whitmer’s back-to-school plan

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, seen here during a press conference on June 17, announced her guidelines for the reopening of Michigan school buildings this fall.
State of Michigan

Michigan classrooms may reopen this fall if the number of new coronavirus cases and deaths have declined in their region, according to a back-to-school plan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer released on Tuesday.

The 63-page plan provides the most detailed picture to date of how Michigan school buildings could look if they reopen this fall. Under the plan’s more stringent safety protocols, teachers and students would wear masks for most of the day.

“Nothing is more important than keeping our kids and our educators and all of their families safe,” Whitmer said, noting that she is “optimistic” schools will open in the fall.

“The last thing any parent wants is to cancel another round of graduations and milestones next spring.”

The guidelines are drawn from the recommendations of Whitmer’s Return to School Advisory Council, a group of health and education experts — including teachers, principals, and a student — that has been meeting for a month to discuss school reopenings.

School buildings won’t reopen for in-person instruction until “the number of new cases and deaths has fallen for a period of time,” in their region, according to the plan. But schools could reopen even if overall case levels remain high. The number of new cases statewide has been rising since June 12.

Whitmer’s school reopening plan is tied to her MI Safe Start Plan, which divides the state into regions and assigns each one a reopening phase from 1 to 6, with 6 being “post-pandemic.”

Most of the state is in Phase 4 of reopening, meaning students there would return to in-person instruction with strict safety measures if school resumed today. In the Traverse City area and the Upper Peninsula, which are in Phase 5, students would return to school with reduced safety protocols.

Masks would be required in the classroom for teachers and students in grades 6 to12 in regions in Phase 4, according to the plan, a measure that is controversial among parents who participated in a survey of several Midwestern states.

Dominic Gonzales, a student at Academy of the Americas high school in the Detroit school district, said teachers and students will make sacrifices to ensure safety.

“As a student, we all know that the return to school will not be to the normality that we’re used to,” said Gonzales, who was a member of the state council that helped establish guidelines for returning to school.

School sports will be permitted once students return to in-person instruction, Whitmer said, though athletes would be required to disinfect hands and equipment regularly and spectators would be required to wear masks. Whitmer called on the state’s high school sports association to push high-contact sports like football and soccer to the spring, while moving individual sports like track and tennis to the fall.

The plan also recommends that schools keep students in distinct groups for as much of the school day as possible to limit the number of students who are exposed to each other.

Whitmer issued an executive order on Tuesday requiring all school districts to produce a plan detailing how they will follow her reopening guidelines. She also announced that the state will send an additional $256 million to schools to cover the costs of purchasing masks, hand sanitizer, and other coronavirus-related supplies. One Michigan school group recently pegged COVID-19 costs at $1 billion.

Families still can’t be sure what health measures their students will encounter at school this fall, in part because the plans allow for districts to collaborate with local health departments, and because the reopening process depends on how the virus spreads in the next two months.

“Hopefully by August we’ll have a pretty clear idea of what it’s going to look like,” Peter Spadafore, advocacy director for the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said.

Whitmer’s guidance comes a week after Republican leaders in the legislature published their own plan for reopening school buildings, which calls for districts to develop their own COVID-19 safety guidelines in consultation with local health departments. Some parts of Michigan have been much harder hit by the coronavirus than others, raising the possibility that school reopening protocols could vary county by county.

With more than two dozen people participating in the council discussions, opinions were wide-ranging. There was a clear consensus, at least, on the importance of hand-washing.

“Everybody agreed that we need to clearly state that hands should be washed frequently,” said Vic Michaels, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, who served on the council.

The group met six times over Zoom for discussions of school hygiene, extracurricular activities, and the feasibility of keeping students 6 feet apart in classrooms. Brandy Johnson, one of Whitmer’s advisers on education issues, led the talks. The governor did not join the calls, Michaels said.

Whitmer did not share her final return to school plan with members of the council before announcing it publicly.

Any reopening plan assumes that coronavirus cases won’t increase too sharply in Michigan, a condition that is far from guaranteed. Roughly a month after Whitmer lifted her stay-at-home order, the daily count of new cases statewide is rising again.

A survey of parents in Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio, found that most want classrooms to reopen in the fall with strict safety measures. Large majorities favor regularly screening students for fever and mixing in-person and virtual instruction to reduce the number of students in classrooms. Fewer parents favor requiring young children to wear masks, though nearly half want children above sixth grade to wear masks, and 55% want adults to wear masks.

The survey made clear that many parents feel they have no choice but to send their child back to school because of their work.

Parents in Detroit, the epicenter of the coronavirus in Michigan, are less optimistic about returning to school. Roughly 40% of parents who responded to a survey from the Detroit Public Schools Community District said they’d rather not send their children back to the classroom.

Benjamin Royal, a teacher in the district and a member of the activist group By Any Means Necessary, said schools should wait longer to reopen.

“There is no data to suggest that we should be talking about reopening schools or reopening anything else right now,” he said. “The only focus should be protecting our students and school communities from this pandemic and that requires keeping schools closed until the threat passes.”

Read the full plan here:

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